Avox in Arcadia (perpetual) wrote,
Avox in Arcadia

Daredevil and Religion

I’ve been meaning for a long time to explain some of the religious themes in Daredevil, particularly in Episode 09: “Speak of the Devil”, based on my own understanding of them as a cradle Catholic. Unfortunately I missed the window in which it was fresh in my mind and I was armed with clear thoughts, so it took me a while, but I finally have something to show you.

Not sure what kind of disclaimer to stick here. I’m not a theologian and I make mistakes. As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been here before, my religion isn’t a topic I generally address online. I’m happy to answer questions when I can, but don’t be immature about this, I don’t have the patience.

Everyone knows that killing people is wrong, but belief systems have some variation on when it's okay to make an exception. According to Catholic doctrine, you can kill to defend your life, or the life of another innocent, from someone who is aggressively trying to take it, provided there’s no other way to stop that person.

And that's it, that's the only exception. Can you kill an innocent to protect another innocent? No. How about killing one to protect two others? No. Five others? No. Well, what if you're protecting five others and the person who has to die for it was going to die anyway? No. What if that person isn't actively trying to kill someone right now, but you know for a fact he's a horrible dirtbag who will prove dangerous in the future? Still no.

You might find all that repellent, and though I'll note with due respect that there's no good option in any of these scenarios, I don't blame you. People think that the hardest part of reconciling Catholic values with the modern world is body politics (because people think everything is body politics). It's not.

So that's the bones of the conversation that Matt has with Father Lantom in "Speak of the Devil". He's essentially asking for permission to kill Fisk, and he's denied, because this isn’t a case that constitutes the sole exception to the rule. He tries to frame it as something that needs to be done to save the lives that Fisk will inevitably take, but he can’t prove that this is the only way: “There’s a wide gulf between inaction and murder,” says Fr. Lantom, which I thought was a nice concise way to put it.

Matt leaves frustrated. We don’t know if he’s convinced at that point, but after Elena’s death, he decides to go through with it. Another of my favorite lines from the episode is when Karen asks if his religion helps him cope in times like these, and he answers, “Not today.” You could take that, as Karen surely does, to mean that faith has limits as a spiritual comfort. But if Matt is planning to commit a mortal sin, just after having it confirmed that he won’t be pardoned, how much easier would it be for him to just stop believing, if only he could?

Everything about the mission to kill Fisk gets that much more harrowing when you realize that Matt’s state of mind going into it is that he’s about to damn his own soul. The concept of damnation is another difficult and often misunderstood part of the doctrine, so let me see if I can elucidate at all. Yes, the jist is that a mortal sin on your conscience at your time of death will send you to Hell. Confession doesn’t work if you were planning on using it as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Therefore, Matt has every reason to believe that if he murders Fisk in cold blood, he’s going to Hell and nothing can save him.

To an impartial observer - okay, to most observers, including myself - it creates a dilemma when you can see that Matt’s intentions are focused solely on saving lives by removing a source of evil. There’s a word for trading your own life and future for the sake of someone else’s, and it’s sacrifice. This is what Jesus did for us; why would God punish a human for making the same choice?

This is about where the show stops answering the questions it raises. Matt doesn’t end up killing Fisk, but he tries, and instead of learning why he shouldn’t, he really just learns why he can’t. You can make the argument for how things turned out better this way, but even in the last episode, Matt’s telling Fr. Lantom, in a vaguely accusatory way, that now another person is dead because he, Matt, didn’t stop the source of the crime when he could have. In essence, I tried it your way and it made things worse. It’s entirely possible that a world with a dead Fisk, a living Ben, and a damned Matt would be a better world than the one they’re in now.

But there’s more to it than that. Sacrificing your life to save someone will mean you’re no longer in the world to help them; sacrificing your soul could mean that you’ve become the new evil that replaces the one you’ve tried to eliminate. “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is the righteous man who gives way before the wicked” - I’ll be honest, most Bible verses just sound like nice poetry to me, but every so often they click, and Fr. Lantom does a great job interpreting this one for us. Damnation isn’t just something that will happen to Matt when he dies. It’s something that will happen to him, and by extension everyone he knows, the minute he succumbs to sin. He may not believe he’ll change for the worse, but he can’t prove he won’t, and Hell’s Kitchen is going to be in bad shape with its only true guardian corrupted.

That’s the practical side of the argument against damnation as sacrifice. The other side is more metaphysical, and more directly Catholic. Lantom cautions Matt that judgment and vengeance are best left to God, backing up what Matt’s just observed about Vanessa and how she would mourn for her lover. Good will come of Fisk’s absence, but so will sadness. Matt can easily infer that the good outweighs anything that Vanessa will endure, but if he hadn’t gone into the gallery, he wouldn’t have even known about her. That means there may be any number of other little tragedies or huge problems caused by Fisk’s death, most of which he can’t predict and may never find out about. How do we make choices like this when we never have a complete scorecard?

The Catholic answer is that we stick to the rules. If murder is wrong, it’s always wrong, and the sin that Matt commits is not a virtue in disguise even if he believes in it so much that he’s willing to give his soul over to the cause, and even if we can’t possibly understand why it’s wrong. Breaking the rules has consequences, not because obedience is paramount but because sin is real, and the inherent evil of an act of murder is an evil that Matt will have put into the world, regardless of what happens to Matt himself.

Fisk’s continued existence, on the other hand, means that people will die, but those deaths are on Fisk, not Matt. In a manner of speaking, they’re also on God, but in a manner of speaking, so are all deaths. He lets innocent people die in natural disasters all the time, and we’re never going to understand that either. Suffering and death have their places, but we as humans are incapable of ever truly knowing what they are. That’s why we leave them to God and accept our purpose as preventing them whenever we can. When we can’t, we know it’s God’s will.

That’s faith, by the way. Most TV shows dealing with a Catholic character are going to ditch the rest of it and just have the priest tell him that he needs to have faith. It’s a lot comfier that way and the audience basically wants a way to dismiss the entire knotty issue of belief while still sympathizing with the cute badass on the screen, so my respect for Daredevil comes from a lot more than my own religious alignment.

I can’t tell if Matt ever comes to some version of my conclusion on his own. For him it may be the far simpler journey of never wanting to kill in the first place and eventually discovering that he doesn’t have to, and can still make a significant difference. I find it immensely gratifying, though, that he stays Christian and even seems to become more active in it by the end. He gets that Fr. Lantom is a wise mentor, and he understands the place that Catholic moral teachings, as well as ritual, have in his life as Daredevil.

What I’m dying to find out as the series continues is whether any of these teachings beyond the one about killing will come up. In particular, I have a pet theory I’m going to share with you now because I’m 90% sure it will get Jossed and I want us all to have a chance to think about how cool it would be before it does.

This one actually is about body politics. We know Matt has a rocky dating history, that he likes to flirt but that his relationships never last long. We don’t know why, though most of us familiar with the genre have probably either theorized or assumed that it’s the usual “Anyone I love would be in DANGER!” deal. In Matt’s case, this would be compounded by guilt over not being able to reveal his secret identity and thus not entering the relationship in full honesty, and that in turn would be compounded by his awareness of the Catholic prohibition of premarital sex. In this entry, I talked about the problems caused by his physical sensitivity - those would also be a factor in his romantic dealings.

Here’s what I’m speculating: what if Matt’s a virgin? What if, due to the combined influence of his Catholic guilt, his complicated vigilante commitments, and his wariness of sensory overload, he’s deliberately avoided sex throughout his life and has successfully kept it secret? It would explain the failure rate of his dating history (Claire is a special case, of course): he meets a girl he likes, has fun going out with her for a while, and then it gets to the point where she expects the next step and he can’t explain to her why he doesn’t want to. It would also offer a load of drama for whatever’s in store for his next romance (as if Daredevil/Elektra wasn’t charged enough already!), and most importantly, it’s the last thing today’s viewers would expect.

In modern fiction, a character’s initial sexual experience is almost inevitably going to be portrayed as a component to the transition to adulthood, or if it comes too early or under bad circumstances, a symptom or cause of turmoil. I would love to see it happen to a character who’s already an accomplished and confident adult. I want Matt to show us how intense sex would be for someone like him. I want him to have a partner who understands his misgivings and loves him for what he’s made of himself, but has to deal with wanting his body too. Or alternatively, I want to see Matt making an informed choice to keep things as they are, and making one more sacrifice for his highest priority.

It’s probably too much to ask for. But just the fact that an entire season has gone by without removing the possibility makes me so happy.

To wrap it up, I have one little Catholic Easter egg I’m so excited about, because I’m pretty sure it was intentional on the producers’ part and I haven’t seen anyone else pick up on it anywhere. Check out this screencap of flashback-Matt, from the scene where he and Foggy first meet in Episode 10: “Nelson v. Murdock”:

What’s that thing on his neck?

That’s weird, why would he be wearing a brown string around his neck and under his clothes? Unless…it’s one of these, perhaps?

If you’re looking for proof that this show Did Do the Research, look no further. Who the heck even knows about scapulars?
Tags: links, marvel cinematic universe, the defenders

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